This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.
If you think about it, the “green” in green building refers to plants. Our health and survival depends on the color green in the form of a vibrant plant committee with which we coexist. That’s why it’s surprising to me how often a “green building” project doesn’t include a focus on the area around the building, the place for interaction with plants and the rest of the natural world. This month I sat down with permaculture and edible landscaping expert Chuck Marsh to discuss how we can reconnect with the area around our houses.
I went to my first permaculture event, a design course in Texas, about 20 years ago. Since then, it seems that permaculture has gained almost mainstream status as a design system. Still, I don’t often see it defined. From your point of view, what is permaculture?
Permaculture is an ecological design system for the creation of regenerative human habitats. “Regenerative” is a key word here. Sustainability means “to hold up”, to maintain. I think we’ve reached a point where that’s not enough. We have a higher calling than to maintain what is. We now need to build up, to reweave the web of life, to restore abundance and diversity to the landscapes and spaces that we inhabit. So, while many people think that permaculture is a gardening system, it is in fact a complete ecological design approach to craft how humans inhabit landscapes whether built, planted, or natural.
As I look at houses, whether they’re in the city or the country, new construction or older in a historic neighborhood, I’m struck by how little the area around the building is actually used. Few people grow food anymore or craft outdoor space that allows them to spend productive time outside. Can permaculture help us connect again with the world outside our front doors?
Everything we build, plant, or just leave alone is an element of our landscape. A central goal of permaculture is to foster relationships so that the yields of one element meet the needs of another. We want to create interdependence.
The house, then, is one piece of a whole system. It has all kinds of companions. Driveways, pathways, gardens, existing habitats, outbuildings, etc. Let’s take a central tenet of green building: energy efficiency. If we consider only the house, we’ll add insulation and energy efficient appliances, then consider the job done. But if we see the house in relationship to the landscape, we can find many more opportunities to conserve. For example, we can place trees for cooling, either through redirecting wind, establishing natural vortexes of air movement, or creating shade. We can also introduce plantings to block winter winds, therefore preventing heat loss in the building.
These same plants can provide food and be a natural habitat, in other words they are multifunctional and therefore can be part of a complex interplay between elements. This multi-functionality is also central to permaculture. So, for example, in addition to being a lane of passage, pavement or pathway surfaces can be chosen to add heating or cooling to the area around a house. In combination with plantings, they can provide both. A bird bath or garden pool can be placed at the right angle in the right spot to bring light and passive solar energy into the house while adding color variation and the magic visual combination of light reflected from water. These are just examples of ways that multifunctional landscape elements can work together to simultaneously create food, thermal efficiency, natural habitat, visual beauty and many other positive effects on the livability of both the interior and exterior environment.
Of course, we used to do this. Nobody had lawns until the beginning of the 20th Century. Instead, people had what were called “door yards”. This was an outdoor space whose center was the kitchen door. It was swept, not vegetated, and was the space where clothes were washed, meals cooked, and beans shucked. Chickens were kept here and fed recycled food scraps in exchange for eggs. Today’s patios are a poor representation, a non-functional replica, of these yards. I think there’s a desire to move back in the direction of useable outdoor space. You see it in high-end outdoor kitchens being included in large custom homes. We can do the same thing and much more at the lower end of the budget scale too.
What can people do to start the process toward reengaging with the area around their houses?
The first step is to throw out the idea of a “maintenance free yard”. Maintenance has gotten a bad rap, but essentially it means “to care for”. Maintenance is love. We need to be creating landscapes that draw us outside, that pull us into interaction. We need to lure kids away from computer generated magical landscapes to the real magic of the sights, smells, sounds, feelings, and tastes of the changing seasons.
How can we trigger this reengagement? The best way is through our mouths. That’s how we discovered the world as toddlers. Therefore, we start with edible plants. We place them along paths and in front of doors, places where people will naturally pass by and take a taste. Next, we intermingle plants and other elements that have different colors, different textures. We create an environment that engages all the senses as it changes through the seasons.
Fundamentally, I see the house as a place for refuge, safety, and nurturing, not for all human activities. We are fortunate to live in a climate in which we can live comfortably outside for seven months of the year. By seeing the house as a single element of a larger landscape, we can shift many activities outside. Why, for example, heat up the indoors in the summer by cooking when an outdoor kitchen is both more enjoyable and comfortable during those months? Remember, too, that useable outdoor spaces are much cheaper to build than their interior counterparts.
The bottom line is that we need to transform our conception of outdoor environments from eye candy viewed through picture windows to functional spaces in symbiotic relationship with interior spaces. The result will be more efficient buildings, a more enjoyable lifestyle, and a reconnection with our true home, the earth.
Sidebar: Tips from Chuck
- Don’t place your house on your favorite spot. Doing so turns the sacred into the vulgar or common.
- Place your house consciously in the microclimate. For example, when building on a hill, site the building mid-slope. Ridge tops are windy and cold and basins are frost pockets.
- Avoid north, northwest exposure. Winter winds create convective heat loss in buildings. If there is no existing natural barrier, place outbuildings or windbreaks to block these winds.
- Start at your kitchen door and work outward. Gardens needing the most care should be near the kitchen. Once you’ve managed these, move outward.
- Make enjoyment easy. Place berry bushes and small fruited plants along paths and driveways so that you’ll pass by and graze.
CHUCK MARSH is a permaculture and edible landscaping/ecological land use teacher, designer, and consultant. He is the founder of Useful Plants Nursery and a co-founder of Earthaven Ecovillage, south of Black Mountain, NC, where he lives and grows. He can be contacted by phone at 828.669.1759 or by email at email@example.com.